How to Talk about Picture Books

In case we don’t say it enough, we here at Calling Caldecott are immensely grateful to all of the guest posters who visit and write about picture books. We enjoy reading their posts and appreciate their thoughtful contributions. We love it when someone points out something in a picture book we hadn’t noticed before.

We also appreciate the willingness of our guest posters to contribute, because it can be intimidating to evaluate a picture book. For many of us who got into children's books because we love words, talking about art — and the ways text and art play with each other in picture books — can be challenging. And it can take us out of our comfort zones.

Recently, one of our guest posters here at Calling Caldecott told us that they found the late Robin Smith’s detailed yet no-nonsense 2013 post, “How to read a picture book, the Caldecott edition” tremendously helpful to read before writing her own post.

We have referenced that post many times ourselves, and we've often sent others to read it. Thank you, dear Robin. We miss you.

What about you, our readers? Do you find talking about art harder than talking about text? Which resources do you depend on for help evaluating picture books? And once you feel confident doing so, what are the kinds of things you look for when reading picture books? What are the elements of a picture book that make it rise to the top for you?

Martha V. Parravano and Julie Danielson
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog. Julie Danielson, co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog, writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
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Susan Dailey

I read the picture book "What Do Illustrators Do? by Eileen Christelow many years ago. It was eye-opening for me! It gave me insight on how many decisions illustrators have to make to create a picture book. I've even shared it with participants in Mock Caldecott workshops. Simple, but very informative. Uri Shulevitz's "Writing with Picture" was another eye-opener. And, like others, I refer to Robin's posts often. She had an amazing gift of making her writing entertaining and accessible!

Posted : Nov 13, 2020 12:14

Rachel Payne

Yes, asking children, as others have mentioned, is key! As someone who works in early childhood, it can be difficult to get clearly articulate feedback from toddlers and 3-4-year-olds (although they can surprise you!). I sometimes looked for eye contact, which researchers often use in early childhood studies. What's holding a child's gaze? That is the first way many of us show engagement and interest. So don't rush through the illustrations when you read aloud with the very young. Hold things there for a couple of breaths. And if there are wordless spreads, hang out a bit longer, which may seem counterintuitive.

Posted : Nov 12, 2020 04:29

Dean Schneider

I agree, Lisa. It's important for committee members to read aloud favorite books to young children, to hear the books and see the reactions. I did this when I was on the committee, and so did Robin (on Caldecott, Geisel, and other committees). It's not that it's a popularity contest, and sometimes kids love perfectly silly books, but it ought to make a difference when children respond well to a truly good book. I remember how much fun it was to read aloud THE WOLF, THE DUCK & THE MOUSE. It didn't win a Caldecott, but it is such a good book and a great read-aloud, and was the pick for the Robin Smith Picture Book Prize that year. (Important to remember that lots of great books don't win prizes.)

Posted : Nov 12, 2020 02:04

Lisa Osterman

Thank you for always highlighting and promoting amazing picture books! For me, there are no better critics than children. I might think a book is headed toward a Caldecott, but unless it receives rave reviews from my second graders, it won’t garner the same level of respect. When I shared Ouside In as a read aloud recently, I could feel the books Caldecott qualities shining as I noticed the expressions on the young faces sitting in front of me. I could hear the books impact as kids shared thinking and returned to the book again and again to pour over the illustrations. Child voices need to be part of the Caldecott decision!

Posted : Nov 11, 2020 08:34

Jules Danielson

Such a good point, Lisa. What did they love about OUTSIDE IN? (I'd love to know!)

Posted : Nov 11, 2020 08:34

Dean Schneider

The beauty of Robin Smith's Caldecott post is its brevity. It's a toolbox any reader, reviewer, librarian, or teacher can use immediately to take a closer look at picture books. So often, it seems, the only response I hear about a good picture books is "it's cute." Robin would say, "Yes, but let's take a closer look." Since she was my wife, we had the best times taking closer looks at so many picture books over the years. I delighted in A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE, her Caldcott Committee choice, though she never got to see my Caldecott Committee choice, WOLF IN THE SNOW. I second Julie Danielson's recommendation of KT Horning's FROM COVER TO COVER as a classic in the field. Another one I refer to often is READING PICTURE BOOKS WITH CHILDREN by Megan Dowd Lambert, who was on the Caldecott Committee with Robin. Reviewing picture books can be more of a challenge than novels; most of us know the basic terminology of the elements of fiction, but knowing how to see a picture book takes some practice, but that's part of the fun--learning to see more. And these resources can help.

Posted : Nov 11, 2020 02:27

Jules Danielson

Dean, I encourage my grad students to go beyond "cute" to describe picture books. I have to say that it's like nails going down a chalkboard for me when I hear that (though they still tend to do it -- maybe I need to be tougher with them!). I tell them: Do not be satisfied with describing something as “cute” or “adorable.” Be specific. Use details to explain how something you see in a picture book is special or effective. Don’t underestimate the books. “Cute” is an inexact, nondescriptive adjective, like “pretty,” “nice,” and “wacky,” “zany.” (Sendak once wrote that people describing his books as "zany" or "wacky" drove James Marshall to a murderous rage). In Jon Scieszka’s brilliant Horn Book article on design, he wrote that people describe his and Lane Smith’s books as “wacky” and “zany” and “anything goes.” He adds: “I wouldn’t want to say they’re wrong (because that wouldn’t be nice either), but I would like to suggest that they’re not exactly right. In order to create the humor and illusion of wacky/zany/anything goes, there has to be a reason for everything that goes. And this Law of Reasoned Zaniness applies just as inflexibly to design as it does to writing and illustrating.” So, yes, it’s important to look at the why of it all.

Posted : Nov 11, 2020 02:27

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